We journey into Tana Toraja at the end of the rainy season, when village life is uninterrupted by tourism, and aluk to dolo, or the way of the ancestors, is restored. Here, in this mountainous region of South Sulawesi, the setting is pastoral. The hills are blanketed in shades of green both alpine and tropical. The massive peaked roofs of traditional houses, known as tongkonan, breach skies swollen with rain. Roosters, pigs and children ignore puddles large enough for wallowing water buffalos. Rural life surrounds and engulfs us, manifested on every inch of Toraja’s fertile soil.
Regardless, it is death we contemplate as we journey through Tana Toraja. This is a land of bones, where the remains of the ancestors line footpaths, ascend trees, and spill out over the fertile fields. These bones are visible, and speak to the core of all that connects us to this earth. Life is cyclical, and death is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Bones endure when all else is forgotten.
According to myth, the ancestors of Tana Toraja came from heaven to earth via a set of cosmic stairs. In death, a Torajan’s soul returns to Puya, the celestial land of the souls. The process is gradual and begins only after an elaborate ceremony is held. Funding such an affair is costly. A loved-one’s body may be interred beneath the tongkonan for years before the family can commence with the funerary process.
After the ceremony is held, the remains are transferred in a wooden box to a rock ledge. This resting place may be inside a cave, or stone grave, or hanging from a cliff face. A carved and life-sized wooden effigy accompanies the remains. The status of the deceased determines how high the coffin and effigy is placed. Thus begins the soul’s climb up the cosmic ladder.
In contrast, the bones are destined to return to the earth. Coffins rot and the skeletal remains tumble from their rocky ledges. Villagers gather the scattered bones and stack like-kind, placing only the skulls in rows. We walk with reverence along paths where the vacant-socket stares of skulls oddly reassure us. I recall a recent visit to Rome where I viewed the bones of saints, venerated as holy relics. Here, the bones are anonymous, cast-off from the souls and the effigies that once defined them.
The bones of the innocent – those of Torajan babies that die before cutting their first teeth – are buried in small niches carved into a living tree. The infant’s remains are absorbed as the soul matures with the growth of the trunk of the tree. We are drawn to the tree’s visible scars, in their various stages of healing, that chronicle both the age of the soul and the tree.
Such trees are hidden in the lush landscape, too sacred for public viewing. Since 1972, when a lavish funeral ritual drew 400 visitors, Tana Toraja has ranked second to Bali as a tourist destination. Regardless, our experience among the Torajans reflects none of this.
We stand alone on the grassy fields of Lemo, looking up to the most-photographed graves in all of Toraja. We are alone as well in the Londa caves, and on the skull-lined paths, and later, as we stand before a tree marked with the graves of babies. After all, this is the season when bruised and swollen skies weep, and tourism subsides. It is the bones that remain, and that cause us to linger as we ponder them respectfully